This Saturday the Victoria and Albert Museum in London will open a show that is all about a fake, in partnership with Scotland Yard. The exhibit, Metropolitan Police Service’s Investigation of Fakes and Forgeries, will explore the work of counterfeit mastermind Shaun Greenhalgh, and reveal some of the techniques used by the police to spot fakes.
Over a 17 year period Greenhalgh created fake art pieces that fooled museum experts and sold for sums as high as six figures. Sentenced in 2007 he is currently serving a four year prison sentence. His parents Olive and George Greenhalgh, who assisted in his activities, were given suspended sentences they were both in their 80s when tried.
Shaun Greenhalghs fakes encompassed both the ancient and modern worlds. These include Assyrian reliefs, Thomas Moran paintings and a Barbara Hepworth sculpture.
The Greenhalghs melted down genuine Roman coins in order to create a forged Rizley Park Lanx – a Roman serving plate described in detail by William Stuckley. The art world tentatively accepted it as an original, and the lanx was sold at auction in 1992 for 100,000, before being donated to the British Museum.
But perhaps his most remarkable criminal achievement is that of the so-called ‘Amarna Princess‘ that was sold to the Bolton Museum in 2003 for 440,000. Its a headless 52 cm alabaster statue that shows what appears to be an Egyptian princess.
Now, this is no ordinary fake. Amarna art is a very unique artform in Egyptian history. It was only practiced for about 20 years during and shortly after the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1352-1336 BC).
As pharaohs go Akhenaten was a total rebel. When he came to power he threw out Egypts polytheistic religion, focusing Egyptian beliefs around the worship of one entity the Aten, a sun-disc. He built an entirely new capital calledAmarna out in the desert and he brought in a new and utterly strange style of Egyptian art.
Unlike the formal prose of earlier pharaohs, art from his reign shows the human body with long spindly fingers,coneshaped headsand intimate scenes such as Akhenaten kissing one of his daughters. Two years after
Akhenatens death Tutankhamun came to the throne and art returned to its traditional formal style which is seen so beautifully in the artifacts from King Tuts tomb. It has been suggested that Akhenaten suffered from a medical condition, such as Marfan’s syndrome, that affected his appearance and caused him to bring in this new art-style.
So the fact that Greenhalgh was able to create such a convincing fake of a royal from such a unique time period of Egyptian art history is quite remarkable.
The Bolton Museum said in a statement that the rarity of the item actually made it more difficult to out as a fake:
There were few comparable objects to compare the statue to, apart from a statue in the Louvre Museum in Paris. For this reason the statues provenance (ownership history) played an important part in the authentication of the statue, they said in a release on their website. Experts at the British Museum also concluded that it was a genuine piece.
To help peddle the fake, Greenhalghs father played the role of front-man. The elder Greenhalgh told the museum a story about how it had been bought by his great-grandfather at an 1892 auction of items from 4th Earl of Egremonts collection.
Shaun Greenhalghs Slip-up
The success of the Amarna Princess appears to have gone to Greenhalghs head. In 2005 his father (again playing front-man) tried to sell three faked Assyrian reliefs to the British Museum. They depicted ancient battle scenes and at first glance appeared to be genuine. But the work that Shaun Greenhalgh had done on the details was sloppy.
The errors were numerous. The artwork showed what appeared to be 20th century harnesses on the horses, and there was a spelling mistake in the cuneiform inscription. To top it off, this time theGreenhalgh’s cover story about how they came about the artefacts didn’t add up.
Museum curator John Curtis told the journal Art and Antiquites that the condition of the reliefs just didn’t fit the story that the piece had been hidden in their garage for decades.” While Iraqi deserts may help preserve Assyrian reliefs, car garages in northern latitudes dont.
Scotland Yard was called and before long the Greenhalghs were exposed.
Their story of fakery was widely reported in the pressand the BBC dramatized it in 2009 with a play called the The Antiques Rogues Show.
Fake artefacts are a constant problem in the museum world with the Greenhalgh case presenting one extreme example. In Toronto, Canada, a show just opened at the Royal Ontario Museum on this topic. Its called Fakes and Forgeries: Yesterday and Today and examines both fake ancient artefacts and modern day goods.
inby fakes as well albeit much further back in the past. The museum has a collection of hundreds of Zapotec artefacts (the Zapotec are a culture in Mexico that dates from 500 BC to present). Out of this collection about half are fake. They were bought in the early 20th century by Charles Currelly one of the founders of the museum.
Currelly also obtained a supposed Minoan ivory statuenamed “Our Lady of Sports.”It showed a women in a dress, with her breasts exposed, engaging in what looked like some sort of athletic activity. It was outed as a fake in 2001, after being on displayat the museum for nearly70 years.
Now, speculation of fakery surrounds the Neues Museum‘s showpiece piece, the Bust of Nefertiti, and, less famously, the bust of Hatshepsut. With such high-profile items seemingly impossible to determine as being either genuine or fake, you have to wonder which, if any, of the world’s treasures on display are actually the work of accomplished fakers. Worried curators should head along to the exhibition at the V&A to get tips from the police on how to tell the real from the replica.
The Metropolitan Police Service’s Investigation of Fakes and Forgeries runs from 23 January 7 February 2010 at the V&A Museum, rooms 17a & 18a. Admission free.